The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Japan vs Canada

My brother David sent me an article comparing Japan and Canada. I know this is something I do a lot on here, for some reason. I think it's because Japan is a first-world nation but it's still just so different from what we're used to. If I were living in, say, East Timor, or Madagascar, maybe the differences would be so obvious that they wouldn't be worth commenting on; but somehow, because Japan has McDonald's and Starbucks on every corner, just like we do, we are a bit more surprised at the differences.

Anyway, here is the article with my dumb commentary thrown in.

Nathalie Atkinson, National Post

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Tokyo recently, I retraced Scarlett Johansson's route from the Shinjuku Park Hyatt trying to conjure my own Lost In Translation moment, but it never came. I didn't experience the much-vaunted cultural disorientation of foreigners in Japan at all while I was there, perhaps because a few short weeks is barely long enough to glimpse each neighbourhood (and certainly not enough to see the less obvious downsides).
Exactly; plus, you're in Tokyo, for cryin' out loud. Try living on an island with 5000 farmers and fishermen.

But at the risk of sounding like a wide-eyed dilettante gaijin, it didn't feel like I was anywhere all that different so much as somewhere simply better, with more -- more people, more stuff, more choice, more neon lights. Toronto may be Ustinov's New York run by the Swiss, but Tokyo is New York run by the Japanese. Times a thousand. It's only when I returned that I experienced the culture shock, in reverse. Without all the thoughtful little Japanese details --like rear taxi doors that open on their own -- Western life's little urban annoyances and irritations seemed that much more amplified.
Here's a sampling of what both you and I are missing:

1. Lost In Space Even in cities where we no longer have vast spaces, like Toronto, we still have more than in any Japanese city. Tokyo, at 12+ million, is densely crowded, but people there have learned and honed over generations the way in which civility (and the many layers thereof) can create personal space. So it's disheartening to see how little we have. The level of noise of people talking amongst themselves becomes a dull roar. I'll take Japan's hierarchical, extremely polite codified language and strict social mores any day. The difference between the Tokyo and Vancouver airport is staggering, and my stereotype of us as the most polite citizens of the world was forever shattered by the succession of Canadians loudly yammering away on their mobiles the moment we landed.
I felt huge reverse culture-shock when I landed in Vancouver, too. People were loud, aggressive, and in my face. Some of the staff at the airport were so rude, I had to remind myself that, No, they're not actually working at being rude, it's just the way they are. It was very disturbing.

2. The Silence Menace I only heard a Japanese cellphone ring twice. For a nation where every one of the over 125 million inhabitants appears to own at least one mobile or PDA, you quickly notice that nobody is actually talking on them. Instead, they text, read or play video games silently -- and small signs posted everywhere remind everybody to keep phones set to vibrate, and not talk on them. The signs themselves are not miraculous -- the miracle is the extent to which they are observed.
If someone on a train or bus does actually have to take an important call, they always hunch their shoulders, trying to shrink down, as they cover their mouth to muffle the sound of their conversation.

3. In Transit Gloria The philosophies of just-in-time and continuous improvement, originally developed for Japanese manufacturing, are employed at every level ( just as there are health and safety committees here, there are continuous improvement committees there).
Public transit is well-integrated, inexpensive and ubiquitous. It's also quite literally on the dot -- dots on the platform show precisely where the doors will open.
I don't know where she gets the idea that it's inexpensive: a trip of maybe 10 km could run you over 10 dollars on the Tokyo rail lines; in Toronto it would be a flat $2.50.

4. White Noise Japanese construction sites are self-contained and keep the surrounding area immaculate. I noticed a strange device at one construction site and realized it was a pair of automatic decibel meters. The ever-changing digits are writ large for the public to read, measuring the construction noise against the ambient traffic and street noise, showing that the former does not exceed the latter.
This one is pretty laughable, actually. Japan must surely be one of the loudest cultures on earth. You go to the supermarket and some moronic jingle is being played at ear-splitting volume on an endless loop. You go to the electronics shop, and it's a different, but equally loud, stupid jingle. You go to the market, and people are yelling the Japanese equivalent of "Step right up!" at the top of their lungs, as if that's not going to make you run in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, political campaigners drive around with roof-mounted loudspeakers, inanely repeating their name. "Tanaka Koji! Tanaka Koji! I'm Tanaka Koji! Vote Tanaka Koji! That's TANAKA KOJI!" Again, I think I'm more likely to vote against anyone who does that... Except they ALL do it. And then there's the Bosuzoku, "Noise Gangs" ... young punks who remove the mufflers from their 2-stroke motorcycles and cruise around at 15 km/h, revving their engines wildly, for absolutely no other reason than to create ill-will. How do they get away with it? Because, apparently, there are no noise laws in Japan. The police literally follow them around in low-speed pursuit, at 15 km/h, until they make a mistake and break some other law. Oh, and don't forget the ultra-nationalists who drive around in black vans, making vaguely menacing statements via loudspeakers. Apparently, they are not so much a political party as a bunch of goons, who park in front of businesses, loudspeakers blaring, and refuse to budge until the business makes a "political contribution", at which point they move on.

5. Economies of Scale To deal with the sheer volume of stuff, everything is designed for efficiency, productivity and hygiene, from the individually wrapped cookies (which also goes hand in hand with the emphasis on presentation) to the near-compulsory, voluntary wearing of surgical-grade white masks in public when one has a cold, so as not to infect others. I wish the guy coughing and hacking on my flight home had worn one.

What, so individually-wrapped cookies are a good idea now? We really need to quadruple the amount of packaging that ends up in a landfill, just so that you can be absolutely certain that no human hands have touched your cookie (at least since they were pawed at the factory, anyway). Surgical masks, however, are an absolutely GREAT idea; next time you've got a cold, go out in public with a mask on and explain why you're wearing it to anyone who asks. Hell, why not write "I have a cold and I don't want to infect all of you" on the front of it? Maybe, just maybe, it will catch on.

6. Portion control The largest clothing size for women maxes out at about a six (though in most places, it's a four), which is tyrannical for an average-sized Western woman on a shopping expedition. But, if I had stayed long enough, I could easily have fit into them thanks to smaller portion sizes for food and drink (and I wasn't even hungry!) As a souvenir, I brought back a so-called "supersized" Kirin Stout glass, a dwarf that resembles a thimble when compared to the rest of my beer mugs. This difference is clearly a factor in why our size large and theirs are so different.
Um, no comment.

7. Convenience Stores The Japanese "just-in-time" manufacturing philosophy trickles down from the department store down to the corner convenience store. The 7-Elevens restock ready meals and fresh items like bread and delectable pain au chocolat just as they are about to run out of them. I already miss the phalanx of vending machines that helpfully gobble up heavy pockets of loose change and dispense everything from chilled lattes to warm meals.
I absolutely agree with this. I wouldn't even think of buying a hamburger or a sandwich from 7-11 in Canada, but in Japan, the food is fresh and delicious. As a result, everyone shops there. And so, the food is fresh and delicious. Vending machines, on the other hand, are just plain evil. There are something like a million of them in this country; so many that they need an entire additional nuclear power station just to power them. Japan is HOT; running a huge refrigerator in direct sunlight in the heat of summer is just stupid. And you certainly don't need "phalanxes" of them, often ruining very picturesque landscapes and historical sites. Nothing says "Japan" quite like a photo of a thousand-year-old temple with a whole bunch of Coke machines off to the side. I'd like to come out in praise of the Japanese summertime habit of opening up the front of your store, and then cranking on the air-conditioning to create a blast of cold air welcoming in anybody who walks by ... it feels really nice ... but the icecaps are melting, in case nobody's informed you.

8. Ablutions Once you have used the Japanese version of a Western toilet, it's hard to come home. In a pristine, quiet and privately enclosed space, complete with purse hook, bench and a gently warmed seat, they have built-in front and back bidets controlled at the touch of a button (like a car wash) and, for the toilet-timid, sound effects like faux-flushing, birdsong or chimes summoned with a wave of the hand. Western public toilets and their grimy bathroom stalls now fill me with dread.
I have to agree whole-heartedly with this. From a hygienic point of view, they are superior; also from an environmental standpoint, as you use less toilet paper. And the sound effects are a great idea, although I've never found them in men's washrooms. Just some muzak would suffice, I should think. Public washrooms are also much cleaner here. In 5 years in Japan, I have gone into a stall where the last person didn't flush ... maybe a dozen times, I don't know. In Canada, I would estimate the rate is something closer to 30-50% of the time. What the hell is wrong with us??


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